Friday, July 10, 2009

Lessons from the Field

It is a long hot, dusty ride from Cairo to Minya[1], but the roads are good and the AC works (sometimes :). We pass the Pyramids in Giza again; the memories still strong from the Imagine Cup award ceremony.

We arrive late at the hotel on the Nile. People have been waiting and I am anxious to see the children and our programs.

In Shousha, the first village, we drive through narrow packed-dirt streets where people squeeze past us. Egypt is often a country of inches. Driving reinforces this; I am relieved to be a passenger. At the school we are met by the proud headmaster. Iman, our Early Childhood Development (ECD) manager, greets him and we all shake hands.

We can hear the children happily chanting their lessons in the full voices of preschoolers. Iman leads us through the building and we enter the first classroom where four year-olds proclaim our welcome in their language, Arabic. Some stare at us; some steal glances and shyly turn away. It is no different than any classroom I have visited, bursting with energy and natural creativity of little ones, before self-consciousness and rationality stamps it down.

The room is decorated as any preschool, with small round tables and tiny colorful chairs. On the walls are posters of lessons about colors, numbers and the alphabet. The children are drawing and coloring with markers.

Iman tells us that the goal of increasing primary school enrollment has been met, with near 100% of the students in the ECD program entering the public schools, an increase from less than 20% just five years ago.

We visit four classrooms. In one, the children are shouting a sing-song lesson about expressing emotions. Saying how they feel and acting on it forms a basis for learning by inquiring—the "why?" of curiosity.

Iman tells us that we are phasing out this program, as the school has been training and mentoring other schools; and writing their own grant proposals. They are ready to take it over, a test of sustainability. The headmaster and three caretakers tell us about what they have accomplished with a mix of modesty yet fierceness in their eyes. They are passionate about the program and want it to continue.

Of course, I ask about computers. My trusted host, Farouk Salah, tells me a PC is installed in each school.

"Do the children use it," I ask?

"No, it's for record keeping."

"Is it a common application?"

"No, it's created for each program; the indicators are different," he explains.

It is ironic that the PC that is so adept at multitasking is treated in such a single-threaded way.

I explain Microsoft's new MultiPoint product and how it allows many children to interact with one computer, so a learning game can be a group activity, with children choosing a color and character for their cursor[2]. Surely our computer is free for an hour a day for children. I note that Microsoft would be interested in applying MultiPoint in our ECD program.

An Access application for each program that needs to track children and program indicators troubles me. I like the entrepreneurial can-do attitude of our workers, and these applications are meeting a near-term need. But there must be dozens of these. Surely we can pick the best one and take them to scale in a way we do with our programs.

A difference in indicators in our programs should not be an obstacle; the engine should be the same regardless of the color and accessories of the car. And for registering and tracking (and counting) kids, we have a mature, shared application in Sponsorship called Asist. We should be able to adapt it for other programs. We are not leveraging our learning.

We travel next to Al Saleeba, and even poorer village. Goats are munching on paper from the street as we walk from the van to a maternity health center. We are joined by Montasser who manages our M&E (monitoring and evaluation) of programs. He tells us how women are being trained in a healthy diet during pregnancy and the importance of breast feeding.

Each week the women decide on a dish to cook and bring to the center. Today it was sweet rice baked with milk and raisins, which they bring to me to try. Wary of a stomach tested earlier in the week, I hesitate, but cannot refuse their kind gesture. It is delicious, reminding me of home cooked rice pudding, but thicker, simpler.

A number of the women have been certified to train others. And so the program is passed on. As in the last village, we are partnering with Community Development Associations? (CDAs) to execute our programs. We are doing a good job leveraging our people, teaching others "how to fish." It is something we do well. We need to take a similar tack with our use of technology, moving it out of the back office.

In the third village, Taha, we see 5 teenage girls who have started their own businesses. A third program manager, Mona, joins us for this leg of the tour. This project is part of our Livelihoods program, where young girls learn the basics of business. The first is proud to tell us of her small "grocery" business of snacks she sells locally. She started with a loan of about $10, which she used to buy goods in a market in Minya. She was proud to say she paid off the loan in three months, and now her mother is borrowing from her.

The next three have a business selling fresh popcorn, made on a stove top. Remembering the fields of corn we passed on the drive, I ask if the corn is from their farm. "The local market" they say in unison. I ask them about their goal. They want to buy a popping machine.

We are running late and a colleague suggests skipping the last stop. I ask if the girl has been waiting and would be disappointed. She says yes, for about an hour and yes, she would be disappointed. We decide to go. She has the most successful business, selling house wares like pitchers, plates and brooms. She is shy, and searches for words. But she is proud that she paid off her first loan in two months. Her father was so pleased with her success, he decided to give her a room in the house to display her goods and increased her loan by $100 to expand her inventory.

Mona tells me that this program is also mature and being handed off CDAs. I ask if our micro-finance (MF) program can be applied to this project. I am told that MF loans are made to women and others over 21. I ask about the mothers becoming MF loan sponsors and posting these projects on-line as Kiva does. It is worth exploring. I would invest in these girls. They are clearly the small business leaders of the future that will lift the emerging world out of poverty[3].

What is her dream, I ask? "To break down the wall and expand to the street" where everyone could see her shop. It is a fitting image and one that stays with me as I say goodbye.

[1] For a description of Save the Children's programs in Egypt, see For a brief history of Minya, see Wikipedia

[2] For some case studies on MultiPoint applications, see the Microsoft Unlimited Potential page, here:

[3] See Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty, where he writes, “when they gain access to new sources of income, poor people continue to astonish me with what they are able to do for themselves.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


One of the foundational goals of NetHope is helping nonprofits solve connectivity problems out the last 100kilometers to the most challenging places in the world in which we work. We believe that for technology to be able to serve those most in need, we need a foundation of connections, even if these are sometimes-connected solutions.

Two of the teams I met at the Imagine Cup competition in Cairo had creative solutions for the blind. The kAMUflage project from team Poland and the iSee project from the China team. Both were top-3 winners in their categories of the H.E. Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak Special Award and Embedded Development, respectively. (I was a judge in the former category.)

Team Poland had an amazing sheet music reader that converted to a Braille display device, which it turn allowed a blind person to compose music that the device sent to a PC that converted it to sound and Braille. The problem was that the Braille input/output device they found in the market and used costs about $2,000.

Team China had invented a Braille input/output device that took queries and fed back Wikipedia pages in Braille. It was another brilliant application. But the really cool thing was that the device they created from standard parts was less than $300. That's almost a seven-fold price improvement.

So I connected the two teams. During the Showcase yesterday afternoon, I invited members of team Poland to join me at team China's booth and see a demo of their product. Team China then saw a demo of team Poland's application. I encouraged them to think of the possibilities of combining their efforts to create a richer, more affordable solution. They both clearly liked what they saw and it was evident they were making the mental connections between their projects. They swapped cards and one of them told me later they had already exchanged emails.

This encounter reminded me that basic connectivity is often about putting the right people together [1]. Perhaps next year we will see a cross-category joint project among Imagine Cup teams from two countries in different parts of the world. That's the type of collaboration that will take us to the next level [2].

[1] I believe the same is also true for knowledge management applications, but that's a story for another day.
[2] BTW, collaboration is NetHope's second founding goal

Celebrating the Simple

Tonight was the World Festival for the Imagine Cup. It was an incredible event--three pyramids as the backdrop and 440+ students cheering for each other. The Romanian team leader said it best, pointing to the pyramids, he said "what we didn't think was possible, is possible." Solving the world's problems is within our reach.

At the morning roundtable with the press on the Design for Development award, I said I saw new hope in simplicity.

The five finalists in this category demonstrated simplicity in three ways. First, that sharing bite-sized information can be powerful. Simple data delivered in short SMS messages to simple cell phones can provide meaningful information that leads to action, like "storm coming; harvest your rice crop now."

Second, manual paperwork can become more reliable and easier to find with a basic application. We learned this decades ago in established economies. Now simple PC-based applications, like medical record keeping in rural clinics, can do that for emerging countries.

Third, simple alerts can have a huge impact. We take for granted our meeting and task reminders in Outlook. For a TB patient, a simple text message can remind him to take his meds and avoid having to restart treatment.

Tieing it all together in a sometimes-connected world is no small feat. There is complexity in the new simplicity. But then again, this is about dreaming the impossible.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Special Awards

Today was a full day of presentations. First up was the Microsoft Unlimited Potential sponsored Design for Development award, focused on development needs in emerging countries where people are living on less than $8 a day. The second was for the Suzanne Mubarak Award, which focused on women and children’s needs. Watch the Imagine Cup web site for announcements for the finalists.

In yesterday's posting, I promised a list of the common themes from the best presentations. Here it is:

  1. The top teams have rich applications. There are multiple modules and multiple devices, with mobile devices dominating, as they did last year.
  2. The teams have thought about their audience and the limitations of their location.
  3. They've thought through security issues, verifying and protecting data and access.
  4. They build on and integrate with established applications, databases and experts (e.g. doctors, clinics, and government agencies). They leverage what's been done
  5. The finalists have anticipated both the technical and the business questions.
  6. They have run a real-world pilot and learned from it.
  7. They have thought about what motivates user to use the system. They know why it will be adopted
  8. They talked about how the system will be sustained. They’re clear about the economic model and the total cost of ownership (TCO)
  9. They’ve thought about how the application will be deployed and upgraded. Can it upgraded remotely? What happens when it breaks? Can it be serviced remotely or swapped out?
  10. They have multimedia presentations, mixing video, photos, demos and pleasant PowerPoint slides (an oxymoron? i.e., avoiding bullets, mixing text and artwork as "pictures")
  11. They clearly and meaningfully tie to the project goals (in this case the MDG goals)
  12. They are passionate about their applications and their excitement is contagious.

These are worth keeping in mind for future teams and for that matter, any development team.

Tomorrow is World Festival Day at the pyramids of Giza where the winners will be announced!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Final Six

I watched presentations from the final six in embedded and software design categories. With over 300,000 applications for Imagine Cup these twelve represent a rarified atmosphere indeed.

Some common themes are clear, but I will save most of these dozen or so observations for post-competition feedback (after Tuesday). I’ll offer two now, from either end of the advice spectrum.

First, the finalists have multimedia presentations, mixing video, photos, demos, even acting and pleasant PowerPoint slides. The latter may be an oxymoron, but some common approaches were avoiding bullets, mixing text and artwork, simple diagrams and an abundant use of photos.

Second, they are passionate about their applications and their excitement is contagious. They let love of what they are doing show. Devin de Vries, a contestant from 2008 and now a start-up entrepreneur in South Africa, said it best. “The day your job becomes your hobby is your last day of work.”

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Power Failure

9:00 AM, judging assignments set, ready to go, and the power in the presentation rooms fails. One of the techs comes into the judges’ lounge with the bad news. Thirty minutes later he comes back. "We're up! But let's give it 5 minutes to ensure it's stable." The student teams mill in the hallway, nerves rattled, waiting. Five minutes pass. "We're down again!"

"In places in the world we work," I say, the basics are not a given; "there can be a power failure each week, and these can be nine hours long." I have the attention of the press and the cameras are rolling[1]. How do we work with technology in such a world?

I tell the story of a Wall Street client in 1979 who talked about file transfer from NY to Houston over dial-up, which was like "getting ducks to mate in mid flight." Ray Ozzie gets it. He led the design of Notes when servers and clients dialed in at 9600 baud and connections dropped in the middle of replications.

Here we are over 20 years later, broadband Internet is common to many of us, but unreliable connections are the reality of much of the world. Power failures have a way of reminding us of that. So we wait and reboot. It is a sometimes-connected world in which we make technology happen.

[1] See information on today’s press conference at the Imagine Cup Blog

Friday, July 3, 2009


How to describe Cairo? Everywhere there are signs of the sun, from the sand and limestone-colored buildings and hills, to the open air markets and people leaning out of windows in the evening looking for the cooling breeze. And the rich mix of the old and the new, the wealthy and the poor, and all that is in between.

I'm on the way to the Citadel, or home of the Mohammad Ali Mosque, as our guide reminds us, for the opening ceremonies of the Imagine Cup. The bus ride is a time to see the streets, marvel at the drivers and the traffic that would give even a New York cab driver a pause, and reflect on the day.

Today was full of preparation, before the opening ceremonies and competition begins in earnest. I attended briefings for judges, press reviews, and watched and rated advance video presentations from some of the teams. I studied nine, finishing just after 6:00 PM, in time for the second wave of busses to the Citadel.

All presentations are scored using a common form. There are 10 category ratings (like innovation), equal weighted, each on a 10-point scale. So for the mathematicians among us, that's a maximum of 100 points. There are definitions for each. It is hard to keep all ten in mind as I watched each clip. I took notes and wrote comments to go back to the teams. This feedback is an important part of judging and one I spend time on, thinking about how each team's application and presentation could be better.

At the opening event, we are outdoors in a corner of the fortress, parts of which date back to the 9th century. As the sun sets, each team is introduced; they run down the aisle cheering, holding flags and brimming with energy as those who have no sense of limitations. Their larger than life exuberance is broadcast on the large screen behind the stage. There are introductions and speeches and memorable lines. One that Ray Ozzie said will stay with me, harkening back to the eccentric students who founded many of our technology companies: those "who believed they could change the world, or didn't know they couldn't change the world." As Joe Wilson reminds us, this is their event and we are honored to be their guests.

Traveling Forward

July 2, and I'm sitting in terminal 2F in Paris, waiting for the Cairo flight to board. It is fitting that this year's Imagine Cup destination builds on last year's competition in the City of Lights, from a sustainable environment to a sustainable world.

I am reminded how often innovation stands on the shoulders of the work that has gone before. Not that the path is always continuous; it is often one of disruption, as Clay Christensen aptly notes[1]. Yet the new presupposes the old even as it breaks new ground in new ways. I will be looking for the disruptive ideas with the appreciation of the eyes of a veteran.
[1] Clayton Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma", 2003.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Counting down days to Cairo I arrive at day zero and am in my seat on Air France at JFK. I have never been to Cairo. The Pyramids loom large. I wonder what the city will look like. I imagine hills, mosques, a mix of the old and new on the skyline.

I wrote about the power of recognizing those times and places when you come alive[1]. Then choosing to put yourselves in that situation where the creative energy flows. The Imagine Cup is such a place. My seat belt is fastened.

Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 99% perspiration[2]. The remaining inspiration may seem small, but 1% from a sea of inventive students is abundant. When I am immersed in eager intelligence, I think more creatively. And more than even the Sphinx, that is what I am anticipating.

[1] See my April 17 entry on Peaks and Valleys

[2] Edison said "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." See Edison quotes here.